The Bisley Boy, the Story of a Princess?

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The Bisley Boy, the Story of a Princess?

by Jennifer Sue

After I screwed up my first contest entry, I pulled and completed another idea. I hope you enjoy

This is a piece of historical fiction based on facts and possible facts. Is it true or is it a fairy tale? The choice is yours.

Everyone has heard about King Henry VIII and his six wives. Also known is his three surviving legitimate children, the first surviving daughter was Mary, born 18 February 1516, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, later after the death of her younger half brother, Edward, becoming Queen Mary I of England and Ireland in July 1553 until her death in November 1558. Next came daughter Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, born September 7, 1533, later, upon the death of her half sister, becoming Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland in 1558 until her death in 1603. Last came Edward born October 12, 1573, son of Catherine Howard, upon the death of King Henry VIII, becoming King Edward VI of England and Ireland on January 28, 1547 until his death on July 6, 1553.

However, there was a fourth surviving although illegitimate child, Henry FitzRoy, born June 15, 1519 son of Elizabeth Blount. At age 6 he was appointed as the 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, titles he held until his death on July 23, 1536. After four years of negotiations, at the age 15, on November 28, 1533 the fifteen year old Duke married Lady Mary Howard, also born in 1519, the only daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. Mary FitzRoy became the Duchess of Richmond and Somerset. Interestingly she was also first cousins with Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, and second cousin to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife.

The ever superstitious and fickle Henry VIII, fearful that too much sexual activity had hastened his elder brother Arthur's death, promptly ordered the couple not to consummate their marriage. The Duke of Richmond died of consumption three years later. His widow never remarried. The duchess of Richmond and Somerset died on December 7, 1557.

At birth, Princess Elizabeth's primary governess was Lady Bryan, but after the birth of Elizabeth's half-brother Prince Edward, Lady Bryan was taken away from Elizabeth to serve solely the new baby Prince. At that time in 1537, Lady Kat Ashley became Elizabeth's primary caretaker, and it is then with Elizabeth being roughly four years old that their close relationship began to form. Kat spent hours teaching Elizabeth everything that a lady and a Princess should know; geography, mathematics, writing, reading, languages, sewing, needlework, riding and dancing.

It was 1544, London was in the grip of the plague, one of many to periodically hit the dirty cities. First would come the fever, then, the diarrhea, the vomiting, the bleeding from your mouth and nose and then, death. Anyone with the money to escape the infected city did so. Most certainly the royal family did so. Princess Elizabeth, third in line to the throne after her younger brother Edward and older sister Mary, was sent to Overcourt House {GM 51.752026, -2.141896} in the small village of Bisley with her governess Lady Kat Ashley and her guardian Sir Thomas Parry. Bisley is in Gloucestershire, high up on the south eastern side of the Cotswold Hills. There, she'd be safe and wait until the plague outbreak was over. She was, after all, a precious commodity for her father, the king. He hoped he'd soon marry her to a foreign prince, using her to form an alliance with the kingdom of France or Spain

Tudor society was divided into four broad groups. At the top were the nobility who owned huge amounts of land. Below them were the gentry and rich merchants. Gentlemen owned large amounts of land and they were usually educated and had a family coat of arms. Most important gentlemen never did any manual work. Below the gentry were yeomen and craftsmen. Yeomen owned their own land. They could be as wealthy as gentlemen but they worked alongside their men. Yeomen and craftsmen were often able to read and write. Below the yeomen were the tenant farmers who leased their land from the rich. There were also wage laborers. They were often illiterate and very poor.

The above is historical fact... but is it the entire story?

There is a theory that the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, the young Henry Fitzroy and Mary Howard Fitzroy DID consummate their marriage before Henry’s order they remain chaste reached them and that Mary Howard Fitzroy gave birth to a son born in mid 1534. Henry VIII had already shown a penchant for executing people who displeased him, so the birth was kept secret by the influential Howard family and the infant was quietly spirited away to the borders of Wales in the Cotswald Mountains near Gloucester to a royal hunting lodge called Overcourt House in the tiny village of Bisley where he was raised and educated.

The Howards were a large and well connected family with collateral relationships in and about Bisley. In those times before social service programs, the wealthier and more influential members of a family were honor bound to see that the basic needs of less fortunate family members were provided with the means to live as gentry. Poor relatives were often relegated to far away places where living was cheap and where they might augment their tenuous incomes by taking in even poorer relatives than themselves which in turn provided safe places to secret family members they wished to hide away. Such was the case with the Neville family whom the Howards had installed as overseers of Overcourt House. If someone wanted to find an out of the way place to secret a child, it would be hard to find a more favorable locality than the little isolated hamlet of Bisley in the Cotswolds. The Howards placed the unidentified Fitzroy infant with the Nevilles. The Nevilles were not told of the boy’s true identity but were ordered and funded to be sure he was well cared for and educated. Clearly the boy was of the gentry, thus never expected to perform manual labor.

The boy most likely would have grown up in obscurity. He knew he was merely a high status ward of the Nevilles, but neither he nor they knew where he came from and what his connections were. Thus the lad had no real prospects in life. There was no title to be inherited and no position awaiting his achieving maturity. But fate had other plans for the secret and only grandson of Henry VIII.

When Princess Elizabeth was sent to Bisley no one knew it was the same place her unknown nephew lived. Being nearly the same age, she being about six months older, the two played and learned together. Of course, no one in Bisley knew of the lad’s true heritage. The children became friends and shared ideas and secrets. Unfortunately, Princess Elizabeth died quite suddenly, possibly of a fever or infection. She should have become Elizabeth I. But at just 11 years old, Elizabeth Tudor died. The flame-haired daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn would never sit on the English throne, would never defeat the Spanish Armada, and would never reign over England's Golden Age. Someone else would do it in her place. And that’s how the great lie began.

Lady Kat and Sir Thomas were rightfully terrified. The princess’ well-being was their responsibility, their duty and she’d died in their care. How would they tell the king? Henry VIII was certainly not known for his compassion and understanding… in fact, and all too regularly, he’d had people beheaded for less. Worse, the king was due to visit Bisley in less than 48 hours... to see his valuable daughter.

Lady Kat and Sir Thomas did what they needed to survive. They decided to attempt to trick the king into believing his daughter was still alive, at least until they could figure out a way to escape the mess they found themselves in. To get past the king’s visit, they’d need a stand-in. While dangerous and difficult it could be done. Henry VIII wasn’t a great family man. He hadn’t seen Elizabeth since she was 3 years old. So all Lady Kat and Sir Thomas had to do was find an 11-year old girl with red hair and teach her how to behave like a princess in less than 24 hours. Easy Peasy?

They immediately hit the first major snag in their nefarious plot. There were no girls who fit the general description of the princess. In fact there was not an elevenish year old girl in the whole area around Bisley with red hair. Luckily the unknown almost eleven year old boy living with the Neville family who oversaw Overcourt House was the same age and a redhead. Better yet he bore a remarkable resemblance to the deceased princess. Like Lady Kat and Sir Thomas, the Neville's were terrified that they could somehow be blamed for the death of the princess since it occurred in the house of which they were stewards. With the king on his way, they willingly agreed to allow their charge to be temporarily substituted for the deceased princess. The adults decided their best hope of protecting themselves and their families was to teach this Bisley boy how to be a princess.

His likeness to the Princess quite extraordinary. He'd been a playmate, companion and fellow pupil since the arrival of the princess and with his red hair could easily pass as a sibling. None of the desperate plotters had any idea he was actually Elizabeth's nephew. Since the boy was a friend and playmate as well as familiar with the circumstances of the life of the Princess, he should be able to portray her sufficiently well to ward off any suspicion caused by not knowing every detail of her life. The boy had the education and knowledge equal to that held by a child of the gentry aged about eleven years old who had been taught by some of the most learned persons of the time. He had skill in the classics and foreign tongues only known amongst high scholars and diplomatists along with an ease of body and a courtly manner and bearing utterly foreign to anyone not bred in the higher circles of social life. With no time to look further afield for a stand-in and running out of time, Sir Parry and Lady Ashley persuaded the lad to be the stand-in for the dead princess. They dressed him up in her clothes and taught him to curtsey.

Their initial intent was to find a more suitable female look alike replacement after the king’s visit. Meanwhile the courtiers secretly buried the real Elizabeth Tudor in a stone coffin in the manor grounds, next to the Church yard.

When Henry VIII arrived the plotters held their breath. Fortunately Henry never suspected anything might be amiss. After his brief visit Henry left later that afternoon believing his daughter, the princess Elizabeth, was alive and well. The hoax then began in earnest. Sir Parry and Lady Ashley realized that if they ever admitted what they had done, the king’s fury would be boundless. They might get out of the country to safety, but their families would surely be killed. On the other hand, few people had known the princess well enough to be certain of recognizing her, especially after an interval of many months. But they'd done the hardest bit. The disguised boy had already fooled the king, the most important deception.

By the same token, not only the king but many of his court had met Princess Elizabeth. Since she would be expected to return to London in a few months, any significant change in her appearance would be sure to be noticed. That meant the Bisley boy had to continue his masquerade. The boy fully understood his life would be forfeit if his masquerade was discovered. So when, after a few months, it was safe for Elizabeth to return to London, it was easy to fool the rest of the royal court as well as those she’d met in Bisley. When the Howard family discovered the subterfuge, they too wisely kept silent knowing that they were bound to be implicated in the plot due to hiding the Duke of Richmond and Somerset’s legitimate son.

The boy understood the high stakes game he was playing. The thrill of fooling the king was tremendous. The allure of the big city, London, called out to his boyish adventurous soul, especially after being stuck in the backwater of Bisley for his entire life. Elizabeth had told him how her mother and many others had lost their heads for angering the King so he knew the danger if his masquerade was discovered.

As the months passed he adapted to life in skirts. Of course, he was quite demanding in getting what he wanted, determined to enjoy the perks of being a princess. Lady Kay had doted on Elizabeth and her replacement looked and behaved so similarly it was easy for her to cling to the new princess, to always look out for and protect her. Elizabeth had been a timid child when she'd left London. She returned a bold and somewhat imperious pampered budding adolescent.

Discreet use of herbs diminished the worst of male puberty and enabled a modicum of femininity. After a time, even suspicion became an impossibility. Here was a young woman growing into womanhood whom all around her had known all her life or believed they had. Any differences in her appearance were dismissed as the natural effects of growing up. Being in London, seeing and hearing about the political chicanery and maneuvering, the new princess grew to fully understand the need to always conceal and even deny her true gender as well as to comport herself within the expected behavior of a princess.

In 1545, Lady Kat married Elizabeth's senior gentleman attendant and Anne Boleyn's cousin Sir John Ashley. She was around forty years old and passed the age of bearing children but felt that in many ways Elizabeth was her child. Lady Kat and Elizabeth found themselves in a bit of a tricky situation when Henry VIII died in 1547. Still a child, Edward VI took the throne. Lady Kat and Elizabeth were moved to live with the former Queen Catherine Parr and her new husband Thomas Seymour. Sir Thomas repeatedly came into the Princess Elizabeth's bedroom in the mornings to tickle her and playfully wake her. Despite Lady Kat's desperate attempts to make him leave, his presence and inappropriate behavior put a temporary strain on her relationship with Elizabeth who enjoyed the play not fully grasping the consequences if her secret were to be discovered. Catherine Parr found out about the illicit play and Elizabeth was sent away from the heartbroken and rightfully angry Catherine. Elizabeth finally began to listen to Lady Kat's warning's against Thomas. In 1549 Thomas Seymour was arrested and executed with many around him falling with him. Lady Kat and Elizabeth were questioned and released.
Edward died on July 6, 1553. On August 3, 1553, Mary I rode triumphantly into London with Elizabeth at her side to became queen. Mary was a devout Catholic while Elizabeth was educated as a Protestant since their father had broken from the Catholic Church. Because of Protestant plots against Catholic Mary I, their solidarity didn’t last long. Elizabeth was imprisoned in March 18, 1554 under suspicion of plotting a treasonous attempt at the English throne and locked in the Tower of London. On May 22, Elizabeth was moved from the Tower to Woodstock, where she was to spend almost a year under house arrest. Once released she moved to Hatfield House in October 1555. By October 1558, Elizabeth was already making plans for her government. On 6 November, Mary recognized Elizabeth as her heir.

On 17 November 1558, Mary died and Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. Elizabeth became queen at the age of 25, and declared her intentions to her Council and other peers who had come to Hatfield to swear allegiance. The speech contains the first record of her adoption of the mediaeval political theology of the sovereign's "two bodies", the body natural and the body politic.

“My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.

As her triumphal progress wound through the city on the eve of the coronation ceremony, she was welcomed wholeheartedly by the citizens and greeted by orations and pageants, most with a strong Protestant flavor. Elizabeth's open and gracious responses endeared her to the spectators, who were "wonderfully ravished". The following day, January 15, 1559, a date chosen by her astrologer. Elizabeth was crowned and anointed by Owen Oglethorpe, the Catholic bishop of Carlisle, in Westminster Abbey. She was then presented for the people's acceptance, amidst a deafening noise of organs, fifes, trumpets, drums, and bells. Although Elizabeth was welcomed as queen in England, the country was still in a state of anxiety over the perceived Catholic threat at home and overseas, as well as the choice of whom she would marry.

The first thing Queen Elizabeth I did after her coronation was to make Sir Thomas Parry a knight, and made her Privy Counselor and Comptroller of the Household, the richest rewards Elizabeth could bestow. Simultaneously she appointed Lady Kat Ashley First Lady of the Bedchamber. For the next seven years, she controlled all access to the young monarch and was her closest companion. Lady Kat would be a voice of reason and comfort to her. Elizabeth was devastated when Lady Ashley died in 1565, and went into heavy mourning. It was Kat who dressed the Queen, who undressed her, and who kept her secrets close. And in many ways, it was an easy secret to keep. Elizabeth would later say that Lady Kat took "great labor and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty."

The corsets, huge dresses and shoulder-pads fashionable at the time made it easy to disguise a masculine frame. The high, lace ruffs worn around the neck easily hid an Adam’s apple. The wigs Elizabeth I was famous for wearing masked a receding hairline, her heavy white make-up covered a five-o’clock-shadow. Throughout her life, Elizabeth refused to see all but a handful of specially chosen doctors. If her secret was betrayed, the country could be plunged into civil war. There was no obvious heir, and Mary’s former husband was now Britain’s greatest enemy, Philip II of Spain.

Publicly, Elizabeth sometimes claimed that people needed to feel their monarch was wedded to the whole country, rather than one man. On other occasions, she hinted that the debacle of her father’s six wives, and her mother’s death at the block, had put her off marriage for life. If those reasons sound flimsy, the queen’s determination to control her image was iron. She wore thick make-up and heavy wigs at all times: no one was permitted to see her without them. And she controlled her succession with equal ruthlessness.

On her deathbed, she commanded that the crown must go to her cousin’s son — James VI of Scotland, whose mother was Mary Queen of Scots. But the command itself was cryptically worded: ‘I will have no rascal to succeed me, and who should succeed me but a king?’

Was it really the Bisley Boy who died a Virgin Queen in 1603 at the age of 69? There were strict instructions that no post-mortem was to be carried out on the Queen’s body. Possibly so the secret would be kept, even in death. After all, the Virgin Queen was said to have taken many lovers, she may have worn wigs and heavy make-up because she was vain, and portraits exist of her in low-cut bodices. Her laundry maids even told spies working for the king of Spain that Elizabeth had periods. They’d seen the evidence of it on her bed linen.

When Bram Stoker, writer and author of Dracula, visited Bisley in the late nineteenth century, he was intrigued by the village’s strange May Day tradition. Like most villages at the time, the village chose a May Queen every year. But in Bisley, the May Queen was always a young boy in an Elizabethan-style dress. When he asked why, villagers told him about the Bisley Boy

A last mystery... some 300 years after the death of Elizabeth I, there was building work in the grounds of Overcourt House in Bisley. The local Reverend Thomas Keble wanted to restore a well. But what he found buried there surprised him. An unmarked grave. And inside that grave, the remains of a little girl, no older than 11-years old. Her body was decomposed but she’d been dressed in the finest clothes of the Tudor times, gold brocade, velvet and lace, and her fingers covered in rings. No one knew who the little girl was. There was no mention of a rich, well-to-do little girl dying in the village during the period. The reverend had the child quietly reburied in the church yard.

Is this story a fairy tale... or the truth?

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Of course, the proper answer to the question in your last paragraph is...YES!

I remember being told this

I remember being told this story when I lived in England back in the early 1950s. Many 'fables' or 'myths' have a kernel of truth contained within them. So who really knows? I do believe that the only way to verify the exact truth, would be to exhume the little girl's body and see if there is enough left to perform a DNA testing to determine who she really was/is.


DNA testing only works if you have other DNA for comparison. There are no living descendants of Henry VIII, and while there are distant relatives, they might be too distant for a convincing identification. After all, it would be just as likely that Henry FitzRoy would have had a daughter as a son, who, after being spirited away, died still a young girl, while Elizabeth survived and eventually gained the throne.

nicely told

Maddy Bell's picture

Yea I enjoyed the read forsooth.

But Cotswold mountains? They are rolling hills reaching all of 250m, I know it's fiction but you have used real places so you need a degree of accuracy.

Enjoyed the read



Madeline Anafrid Bell

Totally intriguing

Well done! A very intriguing tale. Authoritative in the flirtation with facts. Also a darn good read. Thanks Another Brian

The Great Pretenders

In my readings of things historical, tales of cross gender mischief are seen.

As to mountains in the UK, the average height of the mountains in my area is about 1500 meters, with some 2 or 3 times that.

Nice tale.


Nice story


Cindy Jenkins

First a female shakespear and now

Monique S's picture

a male Elisabeth the first? That time must have had a very special energy, LOL.

Intriguing story, though, that nicely tallies with known historical fact (wigs and heavy make up for example). Remains the question of the undoubted devotion to 'her' from Sir Francis and Seymour, but maybe just maybe ... there must have been gays at the time, too.

Monique S